Sitting in Exhibition Hall in Toronto with colleagues, I began to hear the screaming.
“What’s that yelling?” I shouted.
“Ah, the Pope’s motorcade is coming,” my friend Cindee replied.
I shrugged and began to resume our conversation. But Cindee interrupted me and said, “Wait! You’ve never been to World Youth Day before! What’s wrong with you? Get out there, man!”
I hesitated and said with an eye roll, “Cindee, I’m a veteran of the New York media. I’ve been around tons of celebrities; I don’t get star-struck too easily.”
Cindee insisted that I walk out into the throngs of people and so I did so, if for no other reason than to shut her up about it.
I began to walk toward the crowd and somehow got directly up to the metal barricades that lined the street, and there he was, Pope John Paul II, passing right in front of my eyes. It was amazing, touching, and altogether prayerful. I took out my cell phone and called my mother and then later my wife. I had just seen the Pope!
World Youth Day is a hallmark of the papacy. The genius of St. John Paul II was that he realized that young people need to realize that the pope has time for them, the most precious of gifts. Hearing the pope speak your own language, providing time for dialogue through the bishops, and gathering the young Church together as one are just some of the reasons that World Youth Day is an incredible experience.
I attended World Youth Day with Pope Benedict XVI in Sydney, Australia, and had an amazing time there and am now really looking forward to Krakow and to spending World Youth Day with Pope Francis.
The Jesuits do a special program as a precursor to World Youth Day called MAGIS. They gather together young people from Jesuit schools all over the world for brief orientation followed by “an experiment.” These experiments place participants together in groups of 25 for a common experience in spirituality, pilgrimage, or service. For example, Rachael, one of my students, is going to a small Polish town to work with children for about five days. Ben and Greg are doing a long pilgrimage walk akin to the Camino de Santiago. Daphne and Maxine will be working on theater as a means of using non-verbal communication. As for me, I got assigned a spirituality experiment in which I will be walking in the footsteps of Tomas Munk, SJ, a Jesuit novice who was a convert from Judaism. Munk, along with his father, was killed by the Nazi forces in Slovakia at the height of Hitler’s rise to power. I will be walking to sites where Munk lived and worked and most importantly, prayed. This is my favorite period of history, albeit a somber one, and I am really looking forward to this. I will be placed with 24 other pilgrims from around the world, while my students are off to other sites. The experiments will reveal much about ourselves to us and invite us to see God in these experiences as well.
At first I was disappointed not to be sharing this experience with my students. But now I realize that we’ll all have rich experiences to share for the remainder of our time together. Indeed, absence can make the heart grow fonder.
While World Youth Day can often be raucous and crowded, and there’s often a bit of waste associated with gatherings of a crowd this size, it also opens my eyes to the plight of those in other countries. In Sydney, I met Allen, who is from Kenya. I interviewed him about what it’s like to be a Catholic in Kenya.
I was really honored to hear some of Allen’s experiences and to learn more about how dedicated Kenyans were to people who are quite vulnerable in their society. It allowed me to question my own dedication to those in need in my neck of the woods. I’m hoping to re-ignite some passions I have in this area again this time out.
So pray for us, and we will carry your prayers with us to Poland and other sites in Eastern Europe. If you wish, you can send me your prayer requests at email@example.com, and I will carry these with me and read them each day that I am on pilgrimage with the Holy Father, uniting your prayers with ours and the Pope’s.
While the Pope is indeed seen as a rock star, the real rock star is Jesus. So here’s hoping that we encounter the living, breathing Christ as we venture forth on pilgrimage.